A new report on the January 2022 I-95 snow incident says that Virginia agencies failed to apply lessons from a December 2018 snow incident on I-81.
“VDOT needs to improve on applying what is learned from prior events and ensure it is applied to future events,” the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) recommended in an August report. “Lessons learned from the 2018 I-81 Snow Incident, as well as those from the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident, should be analyzed and incorporated into each agency’s policies and procedures.”
On January 3-4, 2022, Virginia’s first major snowstorm of the season led to deteriorating conditions that resulted in complete blockages of I-95, stranding many motorists, including Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). The OSIG report says that new snow removal contractors and contractors with new employees hadn’t yet undergone Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) training. The Virginia State Police (VSP) weren’t able to clear disabled vehicles fast enough, blocking snowplows from being able to remove snow, and the slush turned into an icepack after sunset. Additionally, traffic cameras failed due to loss of power and agencies couldn’t accurately assess highway conditions.
“In the early morning hours of January 4, reality set in that traffic had stopped. The VDOT Commissioner was called at 3:09 a.m. and the Secretary of Transportation was notified,” the report states.
The highway didn’t reopen until 7:30 p.m. January 4.
In its report, OSIG said that the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), VDOT, and the Virginia State Police (VSP) “all anticipated that the forecasted storm would not exceed capacity and resources to respond to the event.”
“Planning for the event in advance of the storm was consistent with policies and procedures. Based on the forecast and the lack of resource requests from localities, VDEM and the Governor’s Office did not pursue an emergency declaration. However, this was not an ordinary storm,” the report states.
OSIG’s top finding was that lessons from an after-action report on the 2018 storm were not applied, including adding more snow removal equipment and resources near problem areas and inclines, improved inter-agency communication, improved incident detection and traffic monitoring, and conducting wellness checks with EMS in backed-up areas. After that report, VDOT’s chief engineer sent a memo with action items like a “more assertive ‘do not travel message’ for the public” and ensuring effective communication.
“Many of the above items were not performed by VDOT during the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident,” OSIG said.
OSIG determined that Virginia “has no hazard-specific plan for snowfall,” the “Commonwealth did not communicate effectively with the public,” “VDOT’s intra-agency communications were not effective,” and that “VDOT Fredericksburg was not able to contract sufficient resources.”
OSIG also found that VDOT and VSP focused on opening the highway.
“Frontline responders shared what they had with stranded motorists, but there was no primary effort to assist stranded motorists, many of whom abandoned their vehicles and sought shelter in nearby hotels,” OSIG said.
Additionally, VDOT Fredericksburg management didn’t take action fast enough to report the seriousness of the situation to executive management. OSIG also found that situational awareness was hampered by bad communications and disabled cameras.
“Full situational awareness was not attainable until daylight on January 4, when a VSP helicopter took the VDOT Commissioner and the VSP Superintendent over the area,” OSIG said.
OSIG’s final finding calls for an alternative to a gubernatorial emergency declaration like West Virginia’s declaration of preparedness, which allows staging the National Guard and other resources as well as providing some additional funds. However, OSIG said that wouldn’t have helped in the 2022 storm.
“This would not have helped in the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident because the forecasted event on January 1-2 did not rise to the level to issue an emergency declaration. However, this may help in future storms to allow for more resource staging, such as the National Guard serving stranded motorists, if needed,” the report states.
“Snow related disaster response and recovery exercises and subsequent training should be performed by the Commonwealth. During an event like the 2022 I-95 Snow Incident, the Commonwealth needs to issue accurate and reliable information with a compelling message and an authoritative tone,” OSIG states.
To improve on future messaging in disaster-level events, VDEM should facilitate communication training for all three agencies,” the report adds.
In a statement, VDEM said, “VDEM is in receipt of the OSIG report and will be working with our personnel to review the findings and corrective actions. Our agency remains committed to serving the Commonwealth across all mission areas of emergency management and will work to implement any changes needed to current policies and/or procedures. This process will also include collaborating with our local, state, and private sector partners to ensure that efforts are coordinated and communicated in a timely manner.”
VDOT Communications Acting Director Marshall Herman told The Star that VDOT has already held a statewide preparedness workshop to plan for the upcoming winter season.
“Messaging, situational awareness, and securing adequate resources for the snow season were just a few of the topics that were discussed during the workshop,” Herman said.
He said VDOT communications staff are taking FEMA courses to improve crisis communications. Additionally, VDOT, VSP, and VDEM have drafted a plan to address long-term backups, including the use of emergency direct communications through text message.
“The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is committed to making improvements with our practices in order to reach our mission during snowstorms – keeping travelers and workers safe,” Hermann said. “The Office of the State Inspector General’s (OSIG’s) audit findings for the January 3-4, 2022 Interstate 95 snow incident provides recommendations for VDOT’s processes, procedures, training and communications during a severe winter weather event. VDOT is working in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and the Virginia State Police (VSP) to address the items noted in OSIG’s corrective action plan to help us meet our agency’s mission.”
The storm happened before Governor Glenn Youngkin was inaugurated later in January, and Youngkin started his term by issuing severe winter weather declarations of emergency on the two consecutive Thursdays after he took office.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, “The governor has issued three states of emergency and the administration has successfully weathered three snow-related events, mitigated risks, and ensured appropriate resources were available for our response teams, and they performed well. The governor appreciates the OSIG’s performance audit of the January 3-4, 2022 Northam Administration snow incident. Under the governor’s leadership, snow events following his inauguration were managed to the standard of preparing for worst-case scenarios as opposed to under-preparing for snow emergency events.”
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